2nd April, 1919
It might seem childish of me to keep writing this diary in the form of letters to you after so many years, but I am still working toward our promise in my own way. Perhaps, by the time I get to Paris, you will already be there — perhaps the streets will no longer be full of dull bureaucrats!
I have taken the position of governess to a pair of children, at an estate on the coast, in a town nearby to S — — called Foulness. What a queer name! I shall be traveling there for most of tomorrow. In this way, I squirrel away savings for the trip.
3rd April, 1919
My dearest Mary,
Foulness is indeed an appropriate name! The stench of the neighbouring salt marsh pervades this town, and those strange oversized marsh insects buzz in tight circles in every corner of the town. It is uncomfortably hot in the sun and uncomfortably cold in the shade. The people here look wind-beaten. They gather in tight little knots on street corners, glaring at strangers and pursing their preternaturally wrinkled lips as if to spit. The rocky shore surrounds the town proper on three sides, with knots of rotting seaweed and trash deposited in this or that crevice, and the color of the sky ranges from white to gray.
The estate where I will be working is on a small rocky island across the marsh, and a low bridge of stones apparently connects it to the town proper, though this is now covered by the tides. There is no ferry out, and no dock on the other side. Though Master Marsten has arranged to have my things brought up ahead of me, I will be taking that bridge in the morning.
4th April, 1919
At long last, I have arrived at the estate proper — just as the maid was leaving. I presume that the bridge is so low as to be submerged most of the time, and the household is careful to cross in and out of town as close to low tide as possible so as to not be caught out. There is indeed no dock: everything here, with the exception of the manse itself, is hewn from the single great stone of the island itself or built from mortared-together pieces of the same — a singular kind of sandy-colored stone with flecks of pink granite, against which the weathered wood (despite the bleaching of the sun and waves) stands out in its dark bulk like the shadow of a mountain occludes the rising moon.
The stench out here is stronger, and animals and sea life sometimes die on the rocks, lending their own unique spices to the already-thick sea air during the warm parts of the day. As I came up to the stone staircase leading from the low bridge to the main building, I saw the corpse of a gull on a nearby rock, its eyes crawling with maggots. I saw a figure clambering on the rocky piles beyond, running back behind the house.
I later determined that this must have been the boy, Terence, who is twelve — that age when boys make sport of poking dead things with sticks. He does not seem abnormally unruly for a boy of twelve. His sister, Anna, is only four but preternaturally calm.
I introduced myself to the children — the maid is the only other member of the household staff, and she sleeps in town, and meanwhile, the master of the house is still involved in his work in London — and got to preparing meals for them. Although the kitchen has been cleaned, the pantry is emptied of anything that could be eaten without cooking — I wonder how long the children have been fending for themselves here.
5th April, 1919
My bedroom is cold and drafty during the night, and gusts of wind kept me awake late, but when finally I fell asleep I dreamt of good times with you before the war. Paris was not the only foolish youthful promise we made in the woods that summer! I had forgotten all the others. I don’t know what prompted all those memories to return.
I awoke early, my room’s cold and drafty room becoming hot and stale shortly after sunrise, and so I was able to catch the maid, a Mrs Grant, before she left. She informed me that the reason there is no ferry and no dock here is that the tides would smash them against the island — and from the sounds I heard last night, I believe it!
She also told me that Master Marsten had moved to London at the beginning of the war, like your father did. She said that the house was built by some eccentric ancestor — a gentleman-scientist who fancied himself an authority on salt-marsh wildlife (although his works were never accepted by the natural philosophers of the Royal Society and never had any kind of wide circulation). I suppose the seventeenth century had its cranks as well.
She indicated that she was grateful that I wasn’t like the previous governess, who she held in some low regard. Apparently, that woman was about my age & quickly became close to the children, only to suddenly disappear one day — leaving the children totally alone for some weeks before I could be hired. How irresponsible!
I requested she pick up some groceries — eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables if she can find any, and flour, since the bag left here has been invaded by some unfamiliar marsh-insect. She will bring them tomorrow morning.
Other than feeding the children and keeping one eye on their adventures on the rocks, I spent the remainder of the day acquainting myself with the house. It has no basement, but it’s larger than it looks from the outside — an octagonal assemblage of rooms piled together like the rock walls it perches on, with a staircase wrapped around the inside of one wall. Most rooms are empty, only storing furniture wrapped in crumbling sheets. In a few places, there are signs of water damage behind and below the radiators; I must remember to ask Mrs Grant about fungicide. One small door set into the wall at the top of the stairway is locked, and I cannot for the life of me imagine where it goes — I will ask about that as well.
The children’s play is strange — though I imagine it must have been borne out of siblings of such different ages being alone together for so long with nothing to do. Terence scrambles among the rocks with a stick in one hand, while Anna sits and watches, seeming to give him commands. How Terence manages to scramble so all day, in such oppressive heat, is beyond my comprehension. Were we so energetic when we were young?
This must have been the game he was playing when I first came, as well. Had Anna sent him to poke that dead bird? She’s such a calm and sweet girl that the notion seems absurd — but still, I cannot shake it. Her calmness remains when she plays this game, but something else — a kind of commanding authority, and not a child’s play-act of authority — comes through in her face.
After supper, the children and I sat by the little stove in the centre of the ground floor landing and I read them a story. Then, Anna said something strange. She said, “Mama says she likes you.” Young children often have vivid imaginations, and so I dismissed it, but her face had that same seriousness.
6th April, 1919
When Mrs Grant came (thankfully hauling flour and eggs, although no fruit and only some meagre-looking withered vegetables unsuitable for pickling), I asked her if Anna had been close to her mother.
“Oh dear no,” she said. “Mrs Marsten, god rest her soul, died giving birth to Anna, who never knew her mother.”
This lifted a weight from my heart. Anna is not seeing her mother out of trauma — she has no concept of what it’s like to have one, and so an imaginary mother is no different from an imaginary mongoose or some other fantastical creature a child might pretend about. Mrs Grant also lifted my spirits with regard to the water damage from the radiators, saying that the house is mostly cedar and gets far worse from the surf — everything dries out in the summer, when it is even hotter during the day than it is now, and the copper roof practically bakes the steam out of the whole house.
Terence was even busier at Anna’s game today than usual. When the wind was right, I heard her preface her orders with something like “Mama says”. Perhaps this is not an imaginary friend at all, but merely a part of the game they invented together.
The activity, in this heat, must have been too much for Terence. Around sundown, I went to call them in, and only Anna came. I asked where Terence was and she said, “still on the rocks”. I let him play for a little while longer, but darkness fell quicker than I expected, so I gathered up a lamp & went out to look for him.
I found him laid out on one of the stone steps, the water line up to his ears, flushed and warm to the touch, & carried him in. As I did, the moonlight reflected in the window of the small parapet atop the roof in such a way that I mistook it for a candle.
I tended to his fever with cool, damp rags, until Anna told me “Mama said use the paracetamol”. I did, and his fever broke, though he didn’t wake up. I will sit with him tonight.
April 6th, 1919
Last night, below the gusts of wind, the waves against the rocks, and the groans of the shifting house, I thought I heard a soft, clear voice as I fell asleep. While it disturbed me, it didn’t keep me awake, and I dreamt of you again. I had forgotten the reason we met in the woods that summer, and how cruelly your father was treating you. I think I was too young to understand the extent of it at that time. I naively thought friendships formed in a vacuum, and that our connection was the result of some shared piece of soul between us, but probably at that time the woods and my companionship were your sanctuary. Has growing into independence made you forget or dismiss the grand plans we made and the oaths we took when we were foolish children? The war and time has changed everything and everyone, but in my dreams I imagine you exactly as you were — only taller, straighter, cleaner. When we meet again — I daren’t say if — I am sure I will be shocked at how you have grown.
I checked on Terence, whose temperature was rising only a little, and roused him into a state of half-wakefulness to give him additional paracetamol, after which he lapsed back into slumber. I noticed his skin was a little greasy & that he was beginning to develop pimples on his cheeks. He is an adolescent after all, but I hadn’t noticed these things earlier in the week, even when ensuring his face and hands were properly washed for supper.
When I discussed fetching a doctor (scarcely worthwhile since by the time one could arrive, his fever would no doubt have passed — what with no doctors in town or even in the next over) I told Mrs Grant about Anna’s strange prescription, and she looked slightly disturbed. She said, “Anna never called her mother ‘Mama’.” After all, she had never had a mother. Instead, that had been Anna’s pet name for the previous governess, who had come nearly four years ago and stayed until recently. “Mama Mary.” I did not say that I had a childhood friend named Mary; it is, after all, a common name!
Mrs Grant will be off on holiday for the next two days, so she stayed a little later than usual to ensure the house was cleaned up. She even helped me a little with the pie I was baking (using a couple rusty cans of fruit that nevertheless smelled edible). She stayed late enough that she had to pick up her skirts to walk back to the mainland! A small part of me wished she had stayed until the tide hit the high water mark on the stone steps, about half a foot above my head, and that she would need to stay the night.
After Mrs Grant left, Anna continued ordering me about — “Mama says fill the bathtub with cold water”, “Mama says take in all the towels off the line”. I played along.
I must have tired myself out, because I found myself dozing before the stove late in the evening, after I would have normally gone to bed. I heard a creaking above me, and a pair of soft voices from the radiator.
One was rambling on and on and periodically giving orders, while the other was giving short responses. I identified the one giving short responses as Anna.
“We have always lived here in tune with the cycle of the waves and the cycle of the tides and we have always let them burst into the waters when they are ripe,” said the rambler. There was a creak and a scraping sound above me. “You are not of age but you can feel this truth inside you. You must let him ripen and the seeds burst out into the water. Do not be afraid of it. He will burst so that you will not. It is only his blood that is wrong. He cannot become one of us. When he is ripened, let him go.”
The rambler went on and on like this, and I tried to transcribe more, but the more closely I listen to the echoes in the radiator, the sleepier I get. Perhaps I, too, have become feverish and delirious? I will finish this letter and go to bed.
April 7th, 1919
Late last night, awakened by Terence’s cries, I discovered the meaning of Anna’s preparations. His fever had gotten worse — far worse — and he was squirming, his muscles spasming. I remembered that the tub was still full of cold water, and being unable to get him to swallow the paracetamol, I carried him there. But, as soon as his torso was submerged, it split open like a pomegranite, white pips floating to the surface. His skin was a thin shell, muscle eaten away and full of small holes, with nothing inside but bones and these squirming white worms that now rushed out. They burbled under the skin on his unsubmerged limbs and face, while the others floated or clung to the edges of the tub. Unable to help, I watched is already-thin form further deflate.
As the last stragglers rose to the surface, leaving a corpse as bloodless as a torn washrag, I heard the front door open, and the worms began a grand exodus, pouring out of the tub onto a line of fresh, dry towels laid out on the floor — a pathway to the doorway, where Anna stood in her nightgown in the pouring rain. I watched them march out, down the steps, and into the moonlit marsh clay, which had risen up above the water line. The worms scattered out, created each a tiny hole, and dove in. The holes in the clay slowly filled up with water.
“Mama wants you to understand,” Anna said from the doorway, drips forming a pool on the floor and soaking the last towel. “Mama is mama now, and Mary too, and even Papa’s Mama.” I was too shocked to respond.
Dazed and benumbed, I climbed up the stairs to my room, and as I slipped into sleep, I heard the radiator calling my name, saying “remember Paris, remember our promise before the war”.
I was naive to hold on so tightly to a youthful promise. Paris is the domain of the Bluebeard of Gambais now, not some glamorous fantasy land of Byronic heroes and symbolist poets. The elaborate dance of court politics and grand balls and fancy dinner parties led inevitably to the deadlier waltz from trench to trench that scarred the countryside, and that scar is inside us now. Even once the peace conferences end and the bureaucrats evacuate their hotel rooms, their ghosts will remain. They were always there. I just didn’t want to see them. This recognition roused me and filled me with a dull energy, like a cup of strong coffee after a sleepless night. There is no place we can escape to, no matter how hard we work, where everything will just be alright. The romance of books can only exist in books (or else only for dandies like Byron, for whom a bohemian lifestyle is a way of passing time); for us there is only a steady labor to further the good and keep out the bad. In these fevered moments, I made the first oath of my adulthood: I pledged my flesh and my life to this labor, not out of a sense of duty but because negligence is failure and failure is death. I pledged myself to this not for some short (but ever-growing) interval until Paris, or Adulthood, or Heaven, but forever.
I took a shovel from the root cellar and destroyed Anna while she slept. Tonight, when the sun sets and your twisted, infected body can move again, I will do the same to you. This is the last letter I will write. In the morning, before Mrs Grant comes, I will take my shovel across the rocky bridge to London to finish the Marsten dynasty.